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The Importance of Asking Questions

Emotions play an integral part in our conversations, motivations, and relationships with others. According to current research, our ability to accurately define the emotional state of others is not as accurate as we would like to believe it is. According to Peter Walla and Jaak Panksepp: “Facial expression is an emotion of the person the face belongs to...” - Walla and Panksepp 2012. If facial expressions—the very way we estimate the emotions of others—are subject to each individual’s subtle variations, we have to introduce a different, more accurate method of understanding our client’s, customer’s, and executive’s emotions. If we want our interactions with others to be based on truth and not misconceptions, we must ask direct questions. We need to ask questions that clarify and dive deeper into the root cause of challenges.

The research

According to research by Wilhelm, Hildebrandt, Manske, Schacht, and Sommer, the average individual’s ability to recognize “emotion-specific” features is not entirely dependable (2014). In this study, 269 young adults were given a total of 16 tasks. Each task varied in the measured aspect of emotional facial expressions. According to the task provided, reaction time and answer choices were recorded.

In each of the tasks, participants were instructed to give their interpretation of different photographs (Wilhelm et al., 2014). Each of these photographs represented an emotion via a photo of a facial expression or visual manipulation of a facial expression (ie. inverted image). All of the data was analyzed using “statistical software” and data analysis methods such as rmANOVAs. The results from these tasks indicate that when emotional expressions get “morphed”, overly-specific, or combined with others, individuals had a harder time identifying the correct emotion that is trying to be expressed.

Wilhelm et al., 2014
Wilhelm et al., 2014

The implications

How often in our daily lives do we assume the emotions of others? It hap

pens in every conversation. While we might be able to generally distinguish happy verses sad, according to this research, we are less likely to make the correct assumption between more complex emotions such as depressed, tired, or frustrated.

It is common knowledge that humanity as a whole is emotionally complex, but with this information in mind, how do we navigate our conversations with others if we cannot depend on our interpretation of their facial and emotional expressions? Simply stated, we ask questions. If we can’t depend on our assumptions or ideas of how people are feeling we have to ask them directly.

Emotions, as well as their expressions, are intricate and subjective to individual experiences therefore they must be addressed directly in conversation. By asking direct questions about the emotional state of the individuals we interact with, we can have a better understanding of their perspective and emotional state as a whole.

Questions to ask

“Questioning is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in organizations: It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members. And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards”

-Brooks and John 2018

Questions have power in our daily interactions. They clarify, identify, bond, and secure communication and understanding between parties. They also inspire and motivate intentional thought between individuals.

Once questions are introduced to the conversation, both parties have the opportunity to clarify communication. This is essential for effective business practices. Miscommunication between executive leaders and their employees or fellow administrators can muddle the objective at hand. By asking questions, goals can be clarified and further supported in their achievement by ensuring all parties understand the tasks at hand.

Questions are also essential for executive coaching. The use of questions during group or one-to-one sessions with executive leaders allows for a deeper understanding of goals, fears, and the current climate of an individual’s work and personal life as well. By gaining this widened perspective of clients, coaches can address and encourage their client’s thought processes with more accurate information, thus leading to greater change and impact.

Questions that invite follow-up

Questions that invite follow-up responses further conversation along and support the bonding between two parties. Brooks and John identify follow-up questions as questions that “solicit more information” (2018). These are questions that can “zoom in” or “zoom out” of the theme at hand (Nguyen, 2020). These questions invite the other party to elaborate, explain, or clarify communication. This is important when attempting to identify the other party’s emotions towards a specific subject. By simply asking, “How do you feel about…” individuals are encouraged to vocalize and identify the emotions that they are experiencing.

One of the roles of an executive coach is to help the client further their own understanding of their thought processes, goals, and decision-making skills. With the additional information that follow-up questions provide, coaches can address clients with greater confidence in their understanding of the client’s goals and emotional state.

Questions that clarify

Asking questions that clarify might seem daunting at first. Questions that seek to clarify information are often avoided by coaches and leaders for fear of seeming unattentive. However, these questions are essential to ensure an accurate understanding of the other individual. According to the psychological principle of active listening, clarifying information ensures accurate understanding and bond development between parties. When the information received is repeated back to its sender, both individuals are ensuring accurate communication.

Furthermore, it creates an atmosphere of attentiveness. When speaking with clients or employees, repeating the information back to them tells them that you are paying attention. This attitude of attentiveness allows the other party to feel heard and understood. This feeling, in turn, further develops the bond between both parties.

Questions that dive deeper

One of the central goals of executive coaches is to encourage clients to dive deeper into their own thought processes. Coaches can use questions as a way to motivate clients to dive deeper into the understanding of their goals, aspirations, emotions, and fears.

Questions that encourage clients to dive deeper include questions about the future, potential outcomes of decisions, goals, fears, and current desires. For example, when meeting a client who must make a vital decision for their company, a future-based question would be: “What is the best outcome of this choice?” This encourages the client to open up and speculate about their fears regarding the decision and their goals. By inviting clients to intentionally dive deeper into their thought processes, coaches can remind them of their original goals and support the achievement of them.

According to Cheverie, a good question can create an “aha” moment, which can then lead to innovation and growth” (2017). Questions that dive deeper into the meaning of action, emotion and habits can create these “aha” moments and inspire intentional change.

Executive leaders can also use questions that dive deeper than surface-level information. Questioning “helps you uncover the challenges you’re facing and generate better solutions to solve those problems” (Cheverie, 2017). When faced with problems or conflicts in the subgroups of a corporation, it is important to dive deep into the root cause of these issues.

As stated prior, we cannot assume the emotions of others based on their expression alone, so it is important to always clarify others’ emotions through questions. After clarifying, it is important to understand the source or root of these emotions by asking questions that dive deeper. For example, customers can be less satisfied with customer service because service employees currently feel they are not paid enough. In this example specifically, it can be easy to minimize the background information and view employees as impatient or untrained, when in fact employees are feeling wronged or shorted by the company they work for; thus creating an atmosphere of distention.

To resolve issues like these, executive leaders must use questions to dive deeper than surface-level issues at hand. This can be done by viewing problems as puzzles to be solved. Each puzzle piece is a tidbit of information that first needs to be found. By gaining insight into the deeper experiences of employees, leaders are more inspired and supported to create solutions that are better for the employees and the corporation as a whole.

What does it all mean?

Both leaders and coaches must ask questions. Questions allow people to bond, learn, clarify, and dive deeper into issues, tasks, or subjects at hand. Coaches and leaders alike can use questions that invite follow-up because they explicitly ask for more information than initially given. This additional information can be valuable to ensure correct decision-making.

Questions that clarify information are also used by coaches and leaders. By clarifying given information, you can portray an intentional awareness of the other’s thoughts, feelings, etc. This awareness further develops the bond between individuals

Lastly, by directly asking questions that dive deeper and question future goals and current ambitions, coaches and their clients can gain a better understanding of what their goal is and how they want to achieve it. Using questions that dive deeper for executive leaders allows them to reach the root of issues and decisions, thus increasing their intentional impact corporately. In the wise words of Anne Burrell, “Part of being successful is about asking questions and listening to answers.”


Cheverie, J. (2017, February 13). Why Asking Good Questions Can Help You Be a Better Leader. EDUCAUSE Review.,solutions%20to%20solve%20those%20problems.&text=If%20you%27re%20asking%20a,or%20take%20on%20the%20challenge.

Nguyen, T. (2020, May 20). A beginner's guide to asking follow-up questions in user interviews. Medium.

Walla, P., & Panksepp, J. (2013, January 9). Neuroimaging Helps to Clarify Brain Affective Processing Without Necessarily Clarifying Emotions. IntechOpen.

Wilhelm, O., Hildebrandt, A., Manske, K., Schacht, A., & Sommer, W. (2014, April 16). Test battery for measuring the perception and recognition of facial expressions of emotion. Frontiers.

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